Is the Dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) Always a Fail?

Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2016

After dropping out of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2016, I’ve been wondering if the finish line is always the measure of success.

DNF: Three little letters no runner wants next to their name on a results page. Behind these innocent looking initials lurks a world of pain, regret and unanswered questions. The dreaded Did Not Finish is a chink in your running armour, a sign of weakness. It represents a moment when you didn’t what all those internet memes say you should do: dig deeper and go beyond the pain. At least that’s one way of looking at it. 

Even as I stepped off the course, 95km and 21 hours into the 115km of the Lavaredo in June last year, I hadn’t registered why DNF is such a big deal. Maybe that was because I’d never had one.

In the five years since I started running, I have finished everything I started. Half marathons, full marathons, my first short ultras, mountain marathons, crazy challenges to run a half marathon every day in December and the Marathon des Sables. But as I Ministry-of-Funny-Walked my way, grumpy and beaten, into a car park in the Dolomites, there was no doubt in my mind I had to give up. For a bloke who peppers his social media with #NeverGiveUp, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

In my attempt to complete the Lavaredo, I’d run for the longest I’ve ever run, and conquered more elevation than I’ve ever conquered. But despite my efforts this will always be the first race I failed to complete. The one that beat me. The one I wasn’t ‘tough’ enough to conquer. The one I got wrong. The one I wimped out on. My DNF cherry was popped, and seven months on as I’m setting new goals for 2017, I’m finally starting to understand why that matters.  

Disappointment in the Dolomites

What made my Lavaredo Ultra Trail disappointment worse was that I’d taken eight members of my family along for the ride. My Team Alger crew had been on their own endurance feat, following me tirelessly from aid station to aid station for 21 hours after seeing me off at 11pm the night before. Failing is one thing, but doing it in front of the people you love, who’ve travelled hundreds of miles and been up all night, is another thing entirely.

I warned them before the race that at some point, they’d undoubtedly be confronted by me claiming I was spent. At that point, I’d given them strict instructions to kick my arse back out onto the course. And here we were.

After falling asleep on a rock three quarters of the way up the biggest climb in the race, I wasn’t faring well.

I won’t go into great detail about why I’d reached my Lavaredo limit, but let’s just say after falling asleep on a rock three quarters of the way up the biggest climb in the race, I wasn’t faring well. I’d already reached breaking point about four hours prior to this, and I’d made all the mental bargains I could to keep moving forward.

As I started from my little nap on that rock, I realised something important: While my body could probably have gone on, a switch had been flicked in my mind. Every step was filled with psychological bile as I mentally wretched my way from rock to rock. I hated the ups. I dreaded the downs. I detested the tricksy route map that made it look like you had an easy 5km coming up, when in fact you were about to face yet another sapping 90-minute climb up yet another mini mountain. Worst of all, I was even starting to despise my own very unique body odour. When your own smell makes you sick, you’re in trouble.  

Sat on that rock right before I had my micro-sleep, I’d watched a dozen ‘runners’ go past. I smiled at them all in an attempt to lift their spirits and mine. Not one of them mustered a flicker of hope in return. Instead of smiles, all I got in return were faces scrunched up and scowling, darkened eyes and gritted, snarling teeth. Not because these were nasty people, just because there was no happiness on this beleaguered, never-ending hill.

And that was when I realised I was done. It wasn’t about whether I could finish, as much as the fact that I didn’t even want to.

Overhead the darkness of night was setting in early thanks to some angry looking storm clouds that had been brooding over us for a while. As I wobbled dejectedly towards my sister on the way to the aid station, I knew she’d do as I’d asked and try to give me a pep talk to get me to go on. I also knew I had to put a stop to that quickly. So before she could even say a word, I told her not to effing bother. There was no way I was going back out there. She took one look at my face and gave me the biggest hug just as the rain started to machine gun down.

In that moment, the relief was immense. I wasn’t lying. Nothing could have convinced me to go back out into those dark mountains for another six hours. As I walked to the car, the heavens really opened, unleashing the kind of torrential rain that turns tarmac into a vibrating lake in seconds. I’d made the right decision and I was happy with myself and what I’d achieved.

But that was then. And the funny thing I’m realising about the DNF is that it’s a tricky little sucker. What I didn’t realise even that day, or in the weeks or months immediately after, was that during all my future runs, that moment would reappear in my head. As time has passed that feeling of certainty I had about my reasons for stopping has been eroded. It’s morphed into dozens of questions of self doubt that pop up each time I run.

Should I have stopped for an hour, rested and gone on? I had the time. Did I give up too easily? Should I have just pushed on to the next aid station? Did I really feel as bad as all that or was I just being weak? Isn’t breaking point where you prove yourself on an ultra? Could I have made it the last 21km? What if I’d done this or done that?

Dealing with the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2016 DNF

The further you get from the DNF, the less you remember the pain. It’s a bit like missing a marathon goal time; you always think maybe I could have just dug a little deeper at mile 23 where I lost a few minutes. The reality is that there are good reasons you couldn’t find more to give, but you still entertain the idea in the post-race autopsy. Forgetting is what keeps us running. If we remembered all of the pain, we’d never get back out there and do it again.

So as the DNF beast jumped on my back in the Dolomites I swore I’d “never ever effing go back”. But now as I tackle my long runs in training for my next ultra challenge (a flat 100 miler, by the way) and I plot my goals for 2017, all I can think about is whether I should go back. Is it important to face down the demons, or should I accept that I did the best I could and find the positives in my Lavaredo 2016?

Perhaps we need to find a way to think of our DNFs as Did Not Fail and look for the achievements in every run no matter the final outcome.